Multicultural Management in the Virtual Project

Abstract

In this changing world, the traditional ways of doing things are being replaced with new and exciting ideas. The growth in information technology has particularly changed many business practices. Virtual workplaces are now possible and are increasingly becoming popular due to the preference by people to work at home and also the need for companies to outsource their work to minimize costs. However, managing virtual workplaces can prove to be hectic and several problems arise especially when one is dealing with a multicultural staff. These problems stem from what is popularly referred to as a ‘culture clash’ which has been responsible for failures in mergers and projects. This paper attempts to analyze these problems, the ethical issues arising and the probable solutions.

Introduction

Multicultural management may be hindered by so many factors. This is because different cultures mean different schools of thought which may sometimes be ‘strange’ or completely opposed to the leader’s mindset. This is why multicultural managers have many to understand the complexity of their roles otherwise they might not achieve any meaningful progress. Due to advances in technology, many companies now have virtual workplaces that bring together the best talent from every corner of the globe. These virtual workplaces are mostly multicultural meaning that they require a manager to have a special set of skills to keep them functional.

Virtual teams can be divided into several categories depending on their purpose and composition. The first kinds of virtual teams are the executive teams. These are mainly made up of managers dealing with a common issue e.g. all human resource managers in an organization. They are mainly semi-permanent and are usually charged with specific functions or divisions in the organization. Another kind of team is the community of practice teams.

These are formed by workers sharing common tasks or working on the same professional level and who are likely to benefit by sharing information and experience. The last kind of team is the project team. This team is specifically created on an ad hoc basis to work on a specific task. The group members are particularly chosen because of their expertise at the task. Upon the end of the task, the team is dismantled. This is the kind of virtual team that I shall discuss in the paper.

Kimball (1997) states that it is the change like teams that creates challenges in virtual teams and not the technology, though the latter gets more attention. There are many modes from which virtual teams can operate. However, managing the team involves a wide spectrum of project management techniques and communication strategies while also taking measures to support human and social processes that are inherent in the group.

While most managers know the importance of the process of facilitation, Kimball (1997) states that very few have grappled with the realities of managing a team separated by time and distance. Nevertheless, the available technology such as an intranet, internet, and groupware (referred to as distributed communication systems) innovative leaders will need to learn how to integrate their team-building strategies into the virtual setting to achieve success.

However, Fischlmayr and Lähteenmäki (2006) state that there are many advantages associated with a virtual workplace. First, forming a team of experts from different areas is easy and takes minimal time since they do not have to travel. As a consequence, the organization saves a lot of money by avoiding travel and accommodation costs. Virtual teams are also very flexible since they can be easily dismantled upon completion of a project.

Discussion

In a report by RW3 Culture Wizard (2010), an American consultancy firm, evidence abounds that though virtual teams have been hailed as being successful, they face far too many challenges. When questioned about the challenges respondents faced while working in virtual teams, a majority stated that the main challenges were; cultural barriers, poor language skills, over-reliance on exceptional leadership, time-consuming team building activities, lack of interaction, slow decision making and the requirement for dedication, experience, and innovation. The respondents who stated that they faced these challenges formed 90% of the survey meaning that indeed there are problems in virtual teams.

On the issue of culture, one respondent stated, “Some nationalities are difficult to work with, irrespective of individuals. Some big cultural challenges.” Another respondent stated, A key to success in virtual teams is the respect that has to exist between the team members in different countries. One country cannot feel it is better than the others.

There is nothing more disruptive than having one country acting as if it knows it all and the others are ignorant.” finally a third respondent thought that, Political agenda of different nationalities, geographic entities, and departments is a major hindrance to the concept of a virtual team. We need to understand that though we are globalizing, we still have asymmetrical power, economic well being, and ethnocentricity among different geographical units.” all these comments bring to the fore the issue of culture and how it plays out in the virtual project setting.

Fischlmayr and Lähteenmäki (2006) state that the problems attributed to virtual workplaces have much to do with creating effective teams, leadership, sharing of information, power development, creating a setting that enhances commitment and a sense of belonging, and the challenges that can result from cultural differences. Gibson and Cohen (2003) discuss the problems that come with these virtual teams and state that their success is highly dependent on the individual characteristics of each team member. This is because virtual working requires lacks an element of supervision, unlike traditional workplaces where the manager can supervise to ensure that the employee is working. Virtual working also requires individuals who are proactive and who are generally outgoing since, in a team, one would need to initiate dialogue by their own accord since managers cannot anticipate their needs (Hertel et al 2005).

Rayner (1997) summarizes the problems of virtual teams using a threefold approach. The first problem is the complexity of communication in the virtual setting. He argues that since 80% of all human communication is conveyed through non-verbal means, communication in the virtual team is incomplete. He further states that it is the facial expression, tone of voice, cadence and body language that help us to ascertain whether the speaker is serious, flippant, cynical or sincere. Through email, one is much more likely to misinterpret things. In the same way, phone conversations can give us clues as to tone and cadence but one still misses out on certain vital nonverbal clues such as a frown, smirk or a nod.

The second problem in the virtual team is the limitation of relation building. Rayner (1997) gives an example of the popular 1980s MBWA (management by wandering around) that was popularized by Hewlett Packard as a crucial management tactic that virtual teams can’t enjoy. Through this “wandering around” casually and informally, managers are more poised to learn about issues or probable solutions that never arose in the formal meetings.

It also presented them with an opportunity to address the various concerns raised, dispel rumors and most importantly explain the organizational strategy. Rayner states that even in organizations that do not use MBWA as a management tactic, a significant portion of the organization’s decisions are either made or influenced by casual interactions occurring outside the formal domain of pre-planned events. He estimates that 30% of management time is used up in “chance” encounters such as in hallways, parking lots and lunchtime camaraderie.

Rayner (1997) also stresses the importance of Informal contact among employees. He points out that this interaction usually extends beyond the workplace but largely influences decisions and relationships during working hours. Often in these informal discussions, creative and innovative ideas come up that may change the course of the organization. In the virtual setting, the opportunities for such a level of idea sharing and relationship building are limited. The complexity of distance interaction is the third and final category of problems in the virtual team setting.

These complexities arise in the form of different time zones, Rayner gives a good example of a team comprising of members from several time zones such as Toronto, London, Seattle, Hong Kong, and Sydney. In this scenario, a “real-time” conference cannot be used as a primary method of communication. Email and voice mail may provide an alternative means of communication but they are limited since all members cannot receive information at the same time. Also, the likelihood to misinterpret or draw an erroneous conclusion from an e-mail or voice mail is higher than a direct call where one can clarify things and ask for further information.

The last category can also be related to the fact that distance comes with changes in culture. Changes in culture themselves mean that understanding communication becomes harder and ideas become more varied. This complexity is highlighted in this paper since it forms a very crucial part of managing virtual teams. It is also important because, with the growth in globalization and trade, managers are now expected to be prepared to lead multicultural teams.

However, Kottolli (2006) finds that most managers fear diversity and are more comfortable working within their cultures. He states that the reason for this is because of mistrust brought about by inaccurate stereotyping, miscommunication due to variations in accent and finally, work stress which is brought by the fear of people from diverse cultures opening up to each other.

Most of the research in virtual teams have focused more on leadership than on anything else. However, multicultural communication is an issue that needs attention since it is one of the most influential factors necessary to bring about success in a virtual team. In their research, Fischlmayr and Lähteenmäki (2006) used students in a multicultural setting to play a business game. They found out that cultural differences influence individual and team decision making. As an example, some students chose not to have a leader in their virtual team since they felt that they were all equal. In another culturally different group, the students had an autocratic leader since they felt that they would need someone to make all the decisions.

In their analysis, Fischlmayr and Lähteenmäki (2006) found that cultural differences influenced almost every aspect of the team. Some of the analyses from the business game showed that Finnish students were democratic in their decision making, US students made decisions quickly, French students analyzed too much and that Canadians were too organized but pushy. Power issues played a huge part in exposing cultural differences consistent with the findings by Fischlmayr and Glaser (2004).

Still, the same qualities as those in traditional workplaces played out with students stating that issues of trust, cultural awareness, and understanding as some of the most crucial issues that were necessary for the team to make progress. The issue of language also came up as a factor since not all students were conversant with English. The Finns were particularly shy and quiet due to language issues and this played out as an important part of the proper functioning of the team.

Using the students’ example above from Fischlmayr and Lähteenmäki (2006), we find that the same applies to a normal virtual workplace. Issues of communication and cultural awareness and understanding form a very important part of the formation of a functional virtual team. Managers need to learn what to expect from various cultures and also try to incorporate that knowledge into their leadership so that they can achieve effectiveness in a multicultural setting.

While there have been many myths about virtual teams, researchers have found many to be untrue. One such myth is that there is a lack of effectiveness in a virtual team. However, this is not true since, in a virtual team, members can make rules to guide them and also delegating work is much easier. Another myth is that virtual teams are generally not accountable. This is not true since a virtual team has to have a leader and all members report to the leader on the various assigned tasks. The dynamics of the virtual group have also been stated as being similar to co-located groups but in truth, they are different since communication in the virtual team is properly documented and group members mainly focus on the task at hand with minimal distractions thus making them more effective.

One of the problems associated with multicultural management is the fact that managers are often accused of prejudice against some other culture even where they do something that they think is in the best interest of an organization (Pauleen 2002). A good example is a manager who sets strict deadlines for submission of work while the employee is a Muslim who has to pray five times a day. Such a manager faces the hard task of accommodating the employee even though this may inhibit the overall effectiveness of the team.

Prejudice comes out as a major factor in multicultural dimensions since all individual members of the virtual team expect that their culture will be respected. Lack of cultural awareness may sometimes form the basis of prejudice. The manager in a multicultural setting is thus expected to be a fast learner and a prudent judge at all times.

According to Egan and Bendick (2007), certain personal competencies are needed for successful multicultural management. These include tolerance, flexibility, ability to articulate vision, resourcefulness, tolerance among other competencies that Cant (2004) describes as ‘global’.

These ‘global’ qualities are; cultural self-awareness which is defined as an understanding of the culture from which the manager ‘conditions’ to shape his or her values, beliefs and assumptions; cultural consciousness which is the manager’s adaptability and sensitivity to work outside the comfort of his or her own culture; multicultural leadership which refers to the ability of the manager to work harmoniously with and lead individuals from diverse cultures or multicultural teams; multicultural negotiations which refer to the manager’s understanding of the approaches and styles of negotiation employed by people from diverse cultures and finally global thinking which is an understanding of the strategic implications that come with global commerce.

Theory of culture

The issue of cultural differences and cultural bias has long been a subject of academic research. Various scholars have attempted to come up with different theories of culture but the theory by Mary Douglas (1982) seems to be the most effective in describing this phenomenon. The theory also referred to as the Grid and group Cultural theory has been modernized by Silzer and Hong (2010) for a better understanding. Silzer and Hong use the terms structure and community to simplify the theory.

Douglas (1982) did a study on the various cultures around the world, from the most industrialized to the simpler agricultural nations. In her observations, she noted that there were two recurring themes; similarities and differences in structure and community. Structure in her theory was used to indicate differences such as gender, age, and class which shape people’s behavior and personality. Community, on the other hand, referred to the similarities that cement the feeling of identity and group belonging.

Using these two dimensions, four different types of cultural ideals emerge. These are: an Individuating culture type indicates a weak structure and weak community, a subjugating culture type which indicates a strong structure but a weak community, a hierarchy culture type that has a strong structure and strong community, and finally an equalizing culture type that shows a weak structure but a strong community. Douglas (1982) found out that a preference for a specific cultural type automatically brings about a cultural bias against the other three types thus influencing the individual’s ‘cultural judging system’. This judging system is responsible for people’s justifications for their cultural practices.

According to Douglas (1982), all four cultural types form part of a whole and therefore the understanding of one of the four brings about an understanding of the other types. Slier and Hong (2010) give an example of an individual from the US which is a typical Weak Structure, Weak Community society as being in a better position to understand Asian cultures which are categorized as Strong Structure, Strong Community through an understanding of their cultural type. However, Douglas (1982) states that understanding one’s own culture is not an easy task since it would involve the individual ‘stepping out’ of their culture and analyzing it as an outsider would. Since most people are not able to ‘step out’, cultural bias continues to be a norm even in the 21st Century.

Real-world case studies

Kerber and Buono (2004) give a good example of a virtual project team in their research. They look at virtual working at ComCorp, a networking company. Due to the upheavals in the telecommunications sector at the turn of the century, the company lost much of its revenue and so it decided to cut down on costs. Its training and development team (T & D) which had 16 professionals worldwide was reduced to 11. Additionally, the new team had no travel budget and was expected to communicate through a groupware application in the company’s intranet.

The T & D team covered 17 time zones and reported to a central command. The team was tasked with coming up with creative solutions to the training and development problems facing the company. The team was to meet for 90 minutes via voice teleconference once a week. This meant that some members had to call in late at night or early in the morning. Other forms of communication were through individual calls to members, emails and voicemail.

The first problem the team faced was building an efficient work routine. However, once this was in place, the team found it to be very effective since they would receive their work in advance and then get to discuss it in the weekly meeting. The need for the virtual team leader to be aggressive came up since it was not possible to individually supervise employees. Still, this was solved through the establishment of a performance management routine where each individual would report his or her progress to the group weekly.

The virtual team at ComCorp was highly successful and came up with major corporate level ideas that changed the organization. They managed to redesign systems and the company reported that 98% of employees received feedback from the company. When queried on the reason for their success, one individual member pointed out that “Our team leader did an excellent job of leading while respecting the expertise and experience of the team. We did not feel stifled yet it was still clear who had the ultimate responsibility…”

Using the ComCorp example, one can see the issues that come to the fore in a virtual team. Though ComCorp was using permanent employees in their virtual setup, the issues are not so different compared to virtual teams that work for a particular project and are dissolved upon completion.

Another valuable case study is provided by Kottolli (2006). He states that while working at Intel, several employees from Puerto Rico were brought on board for a particular engineering project. While these Puerto Rican engineers were quite competent, their American counterparts had a low opinion of them and did not trust them with various parts of the project. The reluctance by the American engineers stemmed from the American perception of Puerto Rican education as being of poor quality. However, the engineers from Puerto Rico had studied in American colleges yet even with the knowledge of this fact, it took time before the two groups could trust each other thus dragging the implementation of the project. This case study shows us the negative consequences that come from poor handling of a multicultural team. In this case, the group leader failed to effectively manage the situation.

Silzer and Hong (2010) provide us with another case study that puts the challenges of multicultural teams to the fore. They describe an organization that had two Americans, two Asians, one European, one Latin American and an African who had come together on a project. One of the issues that arose was that the Latin American and the African were constantly late for the video-conference meeting. This made the other members angry since they perceived the two as being lazy and dragging the team behind. One of the Americans volunteered as a group leader but the European complained that he was not effective in bringing harmony in the group.

The Americans were accused of trumpeting their accomplishments instead of focusing on the group. The African was also not happy with the group leader since being the eldest and most experienced in the field, he was the best suited for the job. The Asians were extremely cautious and were seen as not putting in extra effort to achieve the goals set. The Americans and the European complained that the meetings took too long since the other members were not addressing the issues directly. There were also complaints that the African and the Latin Americans were too emotional and animated when putting across their ideas. Eventually, by the time the project came to an end, all the seven members handed in conflicting reports.

Ethical issues arising

Dealing with a multicultural group is bound to stir up some ethical issues that managers have to be very careful about. Egan and Bendick (2007) state that multicultural management is pegged on sensitivity and any leader who lacks in this domain will most likely be unsuccessful. The two warn against the unethical practice of stereotyping since most stereotypes are misconceptions about the behavior of people in certain cultures. Stereotyping also has the effect of bringing about ineffectiveness since it may hinder the leader’s ability to make an informed decision.

Another ethical issue that arises in multicultural management is the culture-superiority complex. Egan and Bendick (2007) state that while it might be very tempting for the leader to impose his culture on others based on the belief that his/her culture is superior, it is an unethical practice. An attempt at indoctrinating a person to a culture that he or she is not conversant with may have the effect of raising tension and poor relations in an organization.

In a virtual project setting where the group is formed for a particular purpose, using a local approach without considering cultural differences may frustrate the whole project (Piccoli et al 2000). This is because the individuals from other areas may feel that their input is not being considered and thus cause them to lose their motivation and commitment towards meeting the set goal. Fougere and Moulettes (2006) argue that there is a tendency for managers to consider Western culture to be superior to other cultures.

Solutions to problems arising

While multicultural management may bring about several hurdles as seen earlier particularly the requirement for managers to possess personal competencies, there are several solutions to these problems. Kerber and Buono (2004) suggest several approaches that a manager in a multicultural setting might take to bring about success as was seen in the ComCorp case. First, they suggest that the leader should promote an environment that encourages the sharing of ideas rather than taking a ‘dictatorial’ approach.

Secondly, the leader should ensure that there is a proper mechanism for information flow and a communication routine using technology that every team member is familiar with and comfortable with. The information flow should be decentralized such that all members have an equal chance to share information with the group (Pauleen 2002).

Another solution is that the team leader should show the utmost dedication and commitment to the team. Since the members do not meet personally, it is up to the leader to bring about a feeling of togetherness and belonging. The leader should also be intuitive enough to anticipate the needs of members and provide quick solutions to them. This helps to keep the team motivated.

Finally, the team leader in a virtual project setting has to quickly learn and adapt to the cultures of the members. While it might not be possible to understand their cultures entirely, it would be important if the leader learned some of the key parts such as their language, negotiation and relationship building skills. Also, the leader should learn their way of thinking to rationalize their analytical skills. Leaders who properly understand and appreciate the cultural differences in people find it easy to form good working relationships that help in building a functional team (Rosen et al 2006).

Bret et al (2006) summarize these solutions in four points. They state that first, the leader has to adapt to the situation. This would mean absorbing people’s culture and using the lessons learned to guide in decision making. Leaders are thus required to first acknowledge the existence of the cultural ‘gap’ and then proceed to work around it. The second solution is structural. This would involve putting in place mechanisms that make it easier for members to work together.

In the virtual setting, this might involve performance reporting measures and flexible communication methods that have been agreed upon by the group. Thirdly, there is a managerial intervention where the manager now makes use of his team-building expertise to motivate, initiate dialogue and maintain cordial ties in the team. Lastly, there is the option of exit which means that the manager can still exercise the option of removing a member from the team in case such a member is the weak link or troublemaker. However, Bret et al (2006) advise that this should always be a ‘last-ditch’ option where all the other three have failed to produce meaningful results.

Conclusion

As technology continues to advance, our world is getting smaller and people are getting to interact more with others in different parts of the world. Due to this globalization, corporations now find themselves with a multicultural workforce with different ways of thinking (Townsend et al 1998). It is up to the leaders in these organizations to come up with innovative solutions to the problems that may arise from the ‘clash’ of cultures. Successful multicultural management has many benefits since it means that the organization is capable of tapping talent and experience from every corner of the world thus making it more competitive. With success in mind, managers working with multicultural teams will find that understanding people is not so hard.

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